Peter Street and the University of Manchester’s Rutherford Building have been chosen among Ten Places that Uncover the History of Power, Protest and Progress Selected in Historic England Campaign.
The Site of the Peterloo Massacre and the laboratory where Rutherford discovered the structure of the atom chosen alongside the Palace of Westminster, Bosworth Battlefield and the Pitman’s Parliament, ‘working class leadership manifested in bricks and mortar’
In August 1819 dozens of peaceful protestors were killed and hundreds injured at what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. That day a huge crowd of people poured into Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields to hear the orator Henry Hunt speak at what was supposed to be a peaceful rally calling for political reform and better representation in parliament.
The procession of men, women and children heading for this part of Manchester, which was then open fields, was accompanied by bands playing music and people dancing alongside. The crowd was so determined to prove their peaceful intentions that they banned anything that could be construed as a weapon and people left their walking sticks behind in pubs along the way to the rally. But local magistrates feared the crowd was not peaceful and instead had violent, revolutionary intentions, so they sent in armed forces to disperse them.
People who were already cramped, tired and hot panicked as the soldiers rode in, and several were crushed as they tried to escape. The first to die was a baby, trampled under horses’ hooves. A further 14 people were killed, whilst more than 650 were injured.
Despite huge public sympathy for the victims, and horror expressed at the way it was handled, the government responded by cracking down on reform. Peterloo was one of the bloodiest clashes in British political history and remains a key moment in the history of democracy because it allowed the reformers to gain the moral high ground. The events of that day prompted John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old Manchester businessman and witness to the massacre, to start his own paper and campaign for reform. This was the Manchester Guardian, now known simply as The Guardian.
Judge, David Olusoga said: “The nation is about to reconnect with this critically important event. The site needs to be better known.”
The Rutherford Building housed Ernest Rutherford’s former physics laboratory at the University of Manchester. It was here that he discovered the structure of the atom in 1911. The discovery that the mass of an atom is concentrated in its nucleus, a particle 1,000 times smaller than the atom itself, with orbiting electrons making up rest of the atom, paved the way for splitting of the atom in 1917, and the initiation of the field of nuclear physics. For this, Rutherford is known as the “father of nuclear physics”.
Rutherford was aware of what his investigations could mean for society. In 1916 he publicly stated that he hoped mankind wouldn’t work out how to extract the energy from the nucleus until “man was living at peace with his neighbour”. His experiments with nuclear reaction of course changed the world forever, beginning the move towards nuclear power and the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two. But his work also allowed us to develop cancer-fighting radiotherapy.
For David Olusoga, “this is a critically important site in the creation of the nuclear age, in which we still live.”